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Preventing football injuries

Football is a challenging and exciting game that gives kids the chance to experience teamwork and develop physical agility and discipline. It is also a physical game that can result in injury.

Most football injuries occur during running plays, which could be the reason running backs and linebackers suffer more injuries than other players.

However, many football injuries can be prevented when players train properly, play by the rules, and wear the right equipment.

What are the most common football injuries?

Most football injuries affect the lower part of the body. Knee, ankle, and thigh injuries result from contact with other players or when players change direction during play.

Common lower body football injuries include:

Upper body injuries, like shoulder injuries or getting the wind knocked out, happen when a player is hit hard or has a hard fall.

Common upper body football injuries include:

How do football injuries happen?

Knee injuries can happen when a player is cutting and pivoting or changing direction. Twisting or pivoting with the foot planted in place puts ligaments in the knee under a great deal of pressure. Players’ knees can also be injured during a hard tackle, a hard fall, or when resisting being brought down by another player.

Shoulder injuries are most common among defensive and offensive linemen. Many shoulder injuries occur during tackles and hard falls. Overhead throwing can lead to rotator cuff tendinitis.

Burners or stingers result when the nerves that run from the neck to the arm are compressed or overstretched, causing tingling or numbness.

“Jersey finger” can happen when a player tries to tackle another player by grabbing their jersey and tears a tendon in the finger.

All players can get the wind knocked out them. This happens when a hit to the abdomen temporarily paralyzes the diaphragm, the muscle that controls breathing. Players have trouble breathing until the diaphragm can move again.

“Turf toe” is a hyperextension of the big toe that happens when players push off at the start of a play. Linemen are most likely to experience “turf toe.”

What coaches, parents, and players need to know about concussions

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a brain injury that occurs when a blow to the head causes a rapid, rotational acceleration of the brain.

How do concussions happen in football?

Football players can sustain a concussion in a variety of ways, such as a forearm to the head while being tackled, a knee to the head during a fall, and a helmet-to-helmet collision with another player.

How do you know it’s a concussion?

Players with concussions may feel dizzy, have headaches or vision problems, and/or experience nausea or vomiting. Concussion symptoms aren’t always obvious, so coaches, staff, and parents should pay close attention to a player who has been hit in the head for at least 24 hours.

How do you know if a player can return to play?

If a player is suspected of having a concussion, they should be removed from the field and taken for treatment.

If a player has a concussion and keeps playing the game, they risk brain swelling and death, a tragic event known as second impact syndrome.

Following treatment, players should only be allowed to return to football when they have completely recovered and been cleared by a medical professional. Neurocognitive testing can help determine if it’s safe for them to resume play.

What if the player has another concussion?

Players who suffer one concussion may have a greater chance of sustaining another concussion. Over time, football players who have multiple concussions can experience memory loss and a decline in speaking and thinking abilities.

How can coaches, parents, and players reduce the risks of concussion?

Strict adherence to and enforcement of the rules of the game may reduce the incidence of concussion.

Further, strengthening the muscles of the neck may also decrease an athlete’s risk of concussion.

Football injury prevention

Protective equipment

The best way to reduce the risk of football injuries is to make sure players wear the right protective equipment, including:

  • helmet
  • shoulder pads, hip pads, tail pads, knee pads
  • pants (one piece or shell)
  • thigh guards
  • mouth guard with a keeper strap
  • athletic supporter
  • athletic shoes or cleats (check with your league to see what’s allowed)
  • eye protection

If your child wears eyeglasses, make sure their glasses are made with non-shattering glass or safety glass. Contact lenses are also OK to wear.

Pre-season preparation

Before the season begins, young football players should have a physical exam to identify and address existing injuries, the presence of concussive symptoms, heart or lung problems, or other physical issues that could increase their risk for injury.

Pre-practice and game warm up

Before every practice and game, coaches should lead players in a proper warm-up routine. Jumping jacks, jogging in place, and slow, gentle stretching are great ways to prepare for play. As the season continues and temperatures drop, warm-ups and stretching — before and during games — become increasingly important.

Know the plays, know the rules

Injuries often occur when players are out of position, confused about their assignments, or playing outside of the rules. All football players, particularly young, inexperienced players, should study their playbooks and understand exactly what they are supposed to do and where they are supposed to be for every play.

Coaches, staff, and parents should not tolerate “dirty” play in games or in practice. Parents and players should seek out leagues and coaches that put an emphasis on safe and proper play.

How we care for football injuries at Boston Children’s Hospital

As the largest and most experienced pediatric and young adult sports medicine practice in the country, the Sports Medicine Division at Boston Children's combines personalized care with innovative treatment for each athlete we treat.

Our Sports Medicine team consists of sports medicine physicians, orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, podiatrists, athletic trainers, sports psychologists, dietitians, and many others who collaborate in every aspect of our patients’ care and their recovery.

Our Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Program help athletes recover from ACL injuries. Our research-based injury prevention services help reduce athletes’ risk of repeat ACL tears or sprains, and we offer comprehensive psychological support, if needed, to address the social and emotional impact of an ACL injury.

Our Sports Concussion Clinic is one of the leading research-based sports concussion program in the nation. Our team of experts provides comprehensive care for athletes with sports concussions and offers concussion prevention and recovery education for athletes and their families.

The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention, part of the Sports Medicine Division, is dedicated to the prevention of sports injuries. Through research and clinical training, we offer practical strategies that help young athletes reduce their risk of injury while enhancing their sports performance. Our rehabilitation and strength training programs help injured athletes return to play stronger and healthier.

Whether injury prevention or recovery is your goal, we have the skills and dedication to help your child remain active in the sports they love.